One of the (many) ways people can be shortsighted is in their seeming determination to view non-human species as inconsequential except insofar as they have a direct benefit to humans.
The truth, of course, is a great deal more nuanced than that. One well-studied example is the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, something that was opposed by ranchers who owned land adjacent to the park, hunters who were concerned that wolves would reduce numbers of deer, elk, and moose for hunting, and people worried that wolves might attack humans visiting the park or the area surrounding it. The latter, especially, is ridiculous; between 2002 and 2020 there were 489 verified wolf/human attacks worldwide, of which a little over three-quarters occurred because the animal was rabid. Only eight were fatal. The study, carried out by scientists at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, stated outright that the risks associated with a wolf attacking a human were "non-zero, but far too low to calculate."
Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and the wolf reintroduction went forward as scheduled, starting in 1996. The results were nothing short of spectacular. Elk populations had skyrocketed following the destruction of the pre-existing wolf population in the early twentieth century, resulting in such high overgrazing that willows and aspens were virtually eradicated from the park. This caused the beaver population to plummet, as well as several species of songbirds that depend on the insects hosted by those trees. The drop in the number of beaver colonies meant less damming of streams, resulting in small creeks drying up completely in summer and a resultant crash of fish populations.
In the years since wolves were reintroduced, all of that has reversed. Elk populations have returned to stable numbers (and far fewer die of starvation in the winter). Aspen and willow groves have come back, along with the beavers and songbirds that depend on them. The ponds and wetlands are rebuilding, and the fish that declined so precipitously have begun to rebound.
All of which illustrates the truth of the famous quote by naturalist John Muir: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
The reason this all comes up is a recent story in Science News about a project that should give you hope; the restoration of mangrove forests in Kenya. You probably know that mangroves are a group of trees that form impenetrable thickets along coastlines. They've been eradicated in a lot of places -- particularly stretches of coast with sandy shores potentially attractive to tourists -- resulting in increased erosion and drastically increased damage potential from hurricanes. A 2020 study found that having an intact mangrove buffer zone along a coast decreased the damage to human settlements and agricultural land from a direct hurricane strike by an average of 24%.
The Kenyan project, however, was driven by two other benefits of mangrove preservation and reintroduction -- carbon sequestration and increased fish yields. Mangrove swamps have been shown to be four times better at carbon capture and storage as inland forests, and their tangled submerged root systems are havens for hatchling fish and the plankton they eat. The restoration has been successful enough that similar projects have been launched in Mozambique and Madagascar. A UN-funded project called Mikoko Pamoja allows communities that are involved in mangrove restoration to receive money for "carbon credits" that then can be reinvested into the community infrastructure -- with the result that the towns of Gazi and Makongeni, nearest to the mangrove swamps and responsible for their protection, have become economically self-sufficient.
I have the feeling that small, locally-run projects like Mikoko Pamoja will be how we'll save our global ecosystem -- and, most importantly, realizing that species having no immediately obvious direct benefit to humans (like wolves and mangroves) are nevertheless critical for maintaining the health of the complex, interlocked web of life we all depend on. It means taking our blinders off, and understanding that our everyday actions do have an impact. I'll end with a quote from one of my heroes, the late Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai: "In order to accomplish anything," she said, "we must keep our feelings of empowerment ahead of our feelings of despair. We cannot do everything, but still there are many things we can do."
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